Ron DeSantis says backing Ukraine not key for US

Possible presidential candidate shares similar stance as rival Donald Trump, deviating from Republican establishment

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks to Iowa voters in Des Moines. AFP
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Protecting Ukraine is not “vital” for the US, potential presidential candidate Ron DeSantis has said, underscoring that the top two Republican contenders do not see Russia's invasion of Kyiv as a foreign policy priority.

Mr DeSantis, the 44-year-old Florida governor, said the US “has many vital national interests” but that “becoming further entangled in a territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia is not one of them”.

The remark aligns Mr DeSantis, who is considered all but certain to join the 2024 race, with former president Donald Trump in opposing the establishment Republican policy of backing Kyiv.

He was responding in writing late on Monday to Fox News, which asked major Republican presidential candidates for their views on what is certain to be one of the most pressing foreign policy issues in next year's election.

The Florida governor was asked whether opposing Russia in Ukraine was a vital American national strategic interest.

His answer demonstrates the sharp fissure within a party that has traditionally pushed for powerful US engagement on the global stage, as establishment Republicans are challenged by a growing isolationist contingent.

“The Biden administration's virtual 'blank cheque' funding of this conflict for 'as long as it takes', without any defined objectives or accountability, distracts from our country's most pressing challenges,” Mr DeSantis added.

Mr Trump, responding to the same question on whether US backing for Kyiv was vital for Washington, said: “No, but it is for Europe. But not for the United States.”

Establishment Republicans have long argued that defending Ukraine and halting further Russian expansionism is crucial to US interests and not only European security.

“Reports about the death of Republican support for strong American leadership in the world have been greatly exaggerated,” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell told the Munich Security Conference last month.

“We are committed to helping Ukraine, not because of vague moral arguments or abstractions like the so-called rules-based international order but rather because America's own core national interests are at stake.”

The position Mr DeSantis has staked out contrasts with his more hawkish record on Ukraine while he was in Congress, when he supported military aid for Ukraine after Moscow's annexing of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

He also backed a resolution pressuring then-president Barack Obama to provide weapons to help Kyiv “defend their sovereign territory from the unprovoked and continuing aggression of the Russian Federation”.

Many military experts and foreign policy analysts believe President Vladimir Putin is gambling that the Russian will to prosecute the war will outlast US determination to back Ukraine.

Updated: March 14, 2023, 4:10 PM